Continuing Tales

To Cleave the Stars

A Marvel Movieverse Story
by Hollywithaneye

Part 13 of 19

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To Cleave the Stars

Song of the Chapter - A Drowning, by How to Destroy Angels

Nothing had changed, which was both a comfort and a distress to Loki. His rooms were in the exact state he'd left them - the only thing within that had been altered drastically was himself, it would seem. His mother lingered by the writing desk in one corner of his room, its polished surface tiled with stacks of neatly squared papers and books, inkwells and pens and scraps of notes lining the upper edge. Bookshelves nearby reached towards the ceiling far overhead, filled with volumes and scrolls in regimental order. On a small dais opposite the balcony was his great bed, carved from a wood as black as ebony and piled with emerald linens, many woven and embroidered by Frigga's own hand. She looked around the room, almost as if seeing it for the first time herself, and a rueful smile curved her lips.

"I had them leave everything just as it was," she explained. "I...had hoped you would return to us, someday."

His lips felt like stone, forever carved into an unforgiving line that scarcely allowed for words. "Do not fool yourself, Mother. This is no joyous reunion."

"No," she murmured, trailing one hand along the smooth grain of the desk, her face hidden from his by her orderly autumnal curls. "But it is still more than I had hoped for. To see you again, no matter the circumstances."

He brushed past her and made for the washroom adjacent to his bedchamber, its ivory splendor enhanced by mosaics of jade and onyx. Warm water spilled over his hands from the gilded tap, stripping the bloodied gloves from his fingers. Cuts from the broken arrow and Thor's armor stung and bled anew until his bright blood mingled with Jane's duller red in the basin, the pink water taking on a brown hue against the green tile-work. He watched until the last swirl of it drained away before turning back to his mother.

A brief tug on his magic sealed the wounds on his palms and fingers seamlessly and he pondered the smooth unbroken flesh as remorse perched heavily on his shoulders. If only he hadn't frozen, if he hadn't been suffocating on the irrational panic that had clawed his throat, it would have been as trivial a matter to heal Jane's wound.

Small comfort being the greatest sorcerer in the Nine was at this moment. All the magic in the universe couldn't conjure peace of mind or absolution, or lessen the amorphous weight that bowed his back. It felt as if cracks were slowly spiderwebbing across his skin, as if Jane's injury had been a blow that had struck some grave flaw, and he was perilously close to shattering into a thousand incongruent pieces that would never be made whole again.

It took him a moment to find his voice, hiding as it was behind the regret and shame that clogged his throat. "How can you say that? How can you welcome me so blithely? Do you know what these hands of mine have done, Mother? They look clean now, but they're not. They're squalid. Filthy with stains I cannot scrub off." His petrified features finally shifted, rearranged into a bitter grimace. "You cannot know what taint you would embrace."

She pushed away from the desk at that, took a few steps in his direction with eyes that shone brightly in the steady golden glow of lamps far overhead. "Oh, Loki." Her head shook sadly as she approached, tilting her head up to meet her son's gaze despite her own impressive stature. "If you have to ask me that, you do not understand love at all." She reached for his trembling hand, twined her fingers through his own as she clasped it between her palms. "Nothing you do can ever change the fact that you are our son. Nothing. It is not some mark that can simply be erased, no matter how you might try. It is carved, indelibly, on all our hearts. Mine...your brother's...and most certainly your father's."

Loki choked back the bubble of a sob as it rose in his chest. How pitiful it was, that all he wanted at that moment was to fall into her arms and cry, as if he were some little boy with a skinned knee. He schooled his face into practiced neutrality as he drew his hand from her grasp and squared his shoulders. "You presume much, to speak for them."

"Do I?" she asked softly, and Loki shied away from the memory of Thor's stricken face as he made his choice on Midgard. Steeled himself against the sadness that seemed to have stamped itself permanently on Odin's aging features.

As his silence drew out, Frigga sighed and changed the subject. "What will you do, Loki?"

He shrugged wordlessly, reaching restlessly to line up the corners of an already neat stack atop his desk. "What would you do, Mother?" he asked, his idle appearance belying his sharp curiosity.

Frigga shook her head resolutely. "I dare not answer that. I advised you once, pushed you into a decision hastily, and I have regretted it every day since. This is something you must choose for yourself."

The very walls seemed to lean closer, forcing the air from the room. Frigga must have seen the tension on his face, for her grim resolve softened. "Maybe...I should show you something that didn't seem to make a great deal of sense until today. Before you make any decisions," she said.

Curiosity cut through his burgeoning fear and pulled her along behind him as she beckoned, trailing down arched corridors and curving staircases until they had reached a different set of rooms in the same wing. Tall doors swung open at Frigga's touch onto a chamber that Loki hadn't been to since he was a child.

"Why are we here?" he frowned, looking about the weaving room in confusion. Baskets stuffed with skeins of yarn and silk in every color of the rainbow were stacked about, vying for space with looms and embroidery frames of countless shape and size. A few women were chattering while they carded wool and plied spindles, their cheerful faces fading in surprise as they glanced up at the visitors. A single gesture from the queen had them scattering like sparrows before the hawk, leaving the room empty in mere moments.

"I have little seidr, when compared to you or Odin. No flashy magic or spells outside of an unusual affinity for the thread," his mother said quietly, her hands clasped before her as she walked slowly towards the back wall. Her drooping posture and wilted voice grew stronger here, as if this sanctuary held reserves of strength she could tap. "Often what I weave is simply what pleases my eye, or whatever pattern comes to my hands when I reach for thread. But sometimes a design falls upon my mind like lightning, brands itself behind my eyes and demands creation."

He'd heard whispers over the years, unconfirmed rumors that murmured Frigga's name with awe - that Odin was not the only royal with the gift of foresight, that at times her tapestries were eerily prescient. His mother had always stayed infuriatingly mute on the subject, but there had been times he'd seen the gleam of triumph in her eyes after Odin had navigated some particularly thorny issue with success. He wondered now if there really was more than just pride in her husband behind that.

They came to a large loom leaning against a far wall, opposite a bank of glittering windows that bathed the fabric taking shape on it in the fiery glow of the setting sun. An emerald backdrop was set with an elaborate repeating pattern that curled about the edges of the cloth, picked out in strands that shone black and pearly white in the dying daylight. He crept closer and ran disbelieving fingertips over the delicate design, the woolen threads as thin and smooth as silk beneath his touch. She'd woven an expanse of green in the very same shade as his personal livery - and dancing about the border were riotous sprays of ebon minna blossoms, so lifelike he could almost see them still clutched in Jane's fist.

Of all the flowers in all of Midgard, how had she chosen those?

" is this..." he faltered, and turned desperate eyes on Frigga. "What does this mean?"

Frigga tilted her head and arched a brow at Loki. "I was hoping you could tell me."

He pulled his hand back from the cloth and the fingers wrapped about themselves at his side, as if he could trap within his fist the strange feeling that stirred beneath his breastbone. His eyes searched the fabric for some meaning, some clue traced in the haunting pattern, but it remained simply cloth to him.

"How could I?" he growled at last, frustration tangling his brows together. "It's not even finished." With an impatient gesture he motioned towards the abrupt edge of the weaving, where the shuttle waited patiently to be taken up again. Then slow realization dawned, and he turned to look wide-eyed at Frigga.

"It's not finished," he repeated, but this time it was amazement that colored his voice rather than anger.

A small, secretive smile hovered about her lips as his mother idly stroked the raised flowers. "No, it's not." She spared a glance up at her stunned son, and patted his shoulder gently. "Take heart, Loki."

Her words were like tinder to the small spark of hope he'd so desperately guarded, and the resulting flame began to eat away at the trepidation that had been squeezing his midsection. Could Jane really have lived? Was that the symbol he was to read here? He couldn't even bring himself to voice the idea, as if just shaping the words would somehow splinter the spun-glass strength of possibility.

That fragile support bolstered the sprout of a conclusion he didn't even remember planting.

"I can't keep running," he admitted softly. Jane had called him selfish once, and she'd been painfully right. He was selfish. But could he buy his own safety with the lives of others so casually? There was a line drawn there, that separated gods from monsters - one that he might have cheerfully stepped over not so long ago.

He found it harder and harder to contemplate doing so now.

Terror turned his bowels and joints to water, but he forced his limbs to stiffen. And if the small brave smile he pasted onto his face for his mother's benefit wavered about the edges, she had the good grace to let it slide unacknowledged. "Tell...tell the All-father that I accept his alternative."

The jotun came for him the very next morning.

He'd spent a restless night tangled in his sheets, his familiar bed all wrong - too wide, too soft, too silent. There was no clacking of keys at odd hours, no muffled exclamations or curses from the adjacent room. No bracing scent of coffee lingering in the air as the sun rose.

It was just he, Odin, and Thor that marched wordlessly down the shimmering remnants of the Bifrost, where the tattered end of it drifted aimlessly still at the fringes of the void and the veil between realms was thinnest. He'd heard Thor and Odin arguing half the night, the very walls and windows of the palace shaking at times beneath the force of their vigor until Thor had unhappily subsided. Even now Thor's eyes were reddened and grim, and he kept one hand wrapped about the handle of Mjolnir as if he expected frost giants to leap from the shadows at any moment.

Heimdall's copper eyes slid over the gathering curiously from where he towered at the lonely edge of the realm, always at his appointed post, but if he found any irony in the similarities to Loki's last visit he held his tongue. As the minutes dragged out Thor fidgeted ever more anxiously, until his simmering mood finally boiled over.

"It cannot be borne!" he burst out, his knuckles going white as he fisted a hand at his side. "Father, this is madness. To trust the jotun like this? It is not too late...we can still go back and hide Loki away until this storm blows over."

Whatever answer either Loki or Odin might have given him was swept away as the air before them took on a strange sheen, rippling in ever-widening rings like the broken surface of a lake. From the center of the circles appeared first a great hand, large enough to hold any of their heads within its grasp, and then the rest of the figure followed. A half-dozen jotun had shuffled into order when the wavering air parted one last time and out stepped a frost giant that could only be the new queen.

Skadi was nearly as tall as any of her guard although her limbs lacked the bulk of theirs, leaning towards a willowy sort of grace that still conveyed a lean strength. Her heavy features were chiseled into a more alien elegance than those of her companions, imbued with the eerie craggy beauty of a snow cornice. Scarlet eyes roved over their assembled group appraisingly in the silence that had fallen, lingering on Loki the longest. The wind at the edge of the world stirred the white strands of her hair, set them glittering in the morning sun against the riotous colors of Asgard like the first frost of autumn.

"King Odin Borson of Asgard." Skadi's voice was clear and musical, as if shards of ice were tumbling together. Her great head inclined gravely in greeting, and the motion rattled the claws and teeth that adorned her fur-trimmed armor. "We were most pleased to receive your message."

"Queen Skadi the Huntress, of Jotunheim. It is unfortunate that our first meeting is not under better circumstances," Odin replied mildly, his blank face giving nothing away.

She studied Odin for a moment as if searching his statement for hidden insult, before a cold smile slashed across her face. "The circumstances may be unfortunate for you and yours, but they have been long awaited by my people." Her attention swung back to Loki and fear was a trickle of frigid seawater down his spine as her smile widened, glittering harshly like the frozen edge of the North wind. His nerve nearly broke at the sight, and he was halfway towards gathering his magic to tear a passage into being when his courage finally recovered.

Her glee was not lost on Odin, whose face furrowed in a frown. "Prince Loki has agreed to the rite of dreyri as recompense for his crimes against Jotunheim - the unprovoked deaths of 1,065 men, women, and children of the Jotun race. He will serve one hour of dreyri for each death, and thus will be released six weeks from this day. There will be no maiming or disfigurement, and he will be given safe passage in your lands once his sentence is complete. Does Jotunheim agree to these terms?"

It was one thing to have realized, cerebrally, what his decision entailed. It was another to have the details of it laid out so baldly, and Loki could feel the blood draining from his face. With an effort of will he forced steel into his spine and strong-armed his lungs back into motion. He would not wilt at the feet of his captors, would not give their mocking eyes the satisfaction of the sight - Frigga's and Odin's words commingling strangely to give him strength. Whatever happened, he was a prince, and he would do the title honor.

Hunger stretched Skadi's features thin as she nodded her agreement, leaning almost imperceptibly in Loki's direction. "Six weeks, and he shall be given over to his own devices once more. You have my word, on my honor as a shieldmaiden and aseidrkona."

Odin's own snowy hair was a mirror of her own as he tilted his head up to meet her eye. "You will forgive me if I require more assurance." A golden sphere coalesced in his cupped palm, and he offered the glowing ball to the giantess. "An oath spell, Queen Skadi. If these vows are broken, I will know immediately." His friendly mein fell away like a discarded mask, leaving the hard glare and steely resolve of the most powerful being in all the realms when he continued. "And there will be no place in the Nine realms that the Huntress will not be hunted."

The creak of leather as Thor tightened his grip on Mjolnir was all the punctuation that statement needed.

Unhappiness twisted her lips and insult flared in her eyes, but after studying the spell a moment Skadi plucked it from Odin's hand and the warm light of it melded into the blue of her skin, highlighting bone and vessels within as it flared brightly before fading away. "It is done," she spat, and at a flick of her fingers one of her party came forward with a set of shackles in hand.

Loki watched with idle curiosity as the engraved bands were clasped about his unresistant wrists, everything suddenly surreal and dreamlike as if he were watching from outside himself. He felt as the cool metal sucked greedily at his magic, drained his seidr until there was scarcely trickle enough to keep his knees from buckling.

How ironic, that he'd been led to Asgard in shackles only to leave it chained once again.

Skadi's tug on the chain that strung his arms together had him stumbling for balance, and from behind him he heard a muffled sound of dismay as Thor bit back his outrage. With a wave of her hand the air rippled once more, and one by one her guard filed through the portal she'd opened. She angled one last nod at Odin, her sharp chin jerking downwards before she stepped into the passage between realms dragging Loki behind her like an unruly pup.

He felt the stirrings of magic behind his navel, that tug that signaled a leap through space as the toes of his boots breached the opening before he was pulled to an abrupt stop by the steel band of fingers wrapping about his arm. Thor's face filled his vision and the emotion that twisted his features broke through the fog of detachment that had cushioned Loki so far.

"I will be here in six weeks. And if you do not return to me, brother..." Loki could have sworn that the low rumble of thunder danced along the edge of Thor's voice, and the ghost of lightning flashed in the depths of his blue eyes. "Jotunheim will have brought down a storm upon themselves, the likes of which will tear their realm stone from stone. I will come for you."

He held Thor's desperate gaze as long as he could before the insatiable magic tore him from Thor's grasp and hurled him into the dizzying spaces between stars. Folding up the promise that had been written on his brother's face Loki clutched it tightly to himself, as if it was a talisman that could ward off the horrors that awaited.

Loki tumbled numbly from the passageway between worlds into the harsh landscape of Jotunheim, held upright only by Skadi's iron grip on his manacles. They stood at the foot of her great icy throne where it towered over an assembly of giants, their ululating cries and jeers crashing like an avalanche against his eardrums. Ice and snow blew in the cutting wind, stinging his eyes and slipping frigid fingers beneath the collar of his tunic, setting him to shivering despite his natural resistance to freezing. The cold was a tangible thing on Jotunheim, a presence that pressed down on you like a great icy palm and punished you for each breath drawn. Overhead the sky was purple and swollen, like a permanent bruise that blighted the jagged beauty of the ice. No sun ever rose here to gild the glacial structures, or to melt the razor edges that glittered all around. It was a fierce, unforgiving place.

Much like its people.

A gesture from Skadi silenced the cheering crowd, and she ascended the steps that had been chiseled into the dais, dragging Loki up the slick surface behind her.

"My people," she began once she had ascended, and her dulcet voice carried clearly across the eager, silent masses. "Today justice has smiled upon us all, and delivered unto us the agent of our misery. Behold the coward of Asgard, who hides behind distant weapons and slaughters innocents!"

She yanked his chains upwards, straining his arms in their sockets and bringing him to tiptoe, his eyes watering with the pain. A wall of sound rose from the people below as they roared their approval, slamming into him like a fist. Everywhere his desperate eyes searched he saw nothing but rage and bloodlust, hatred knotting the faces of jotun until they were scarcely recognizable as sentient. A fierce grin broke onto Skadi's face as she bathed in the chaos, letting her subjects whip themselves into a frenzy before motioning for silence once more.

"I am disappointed to tell you that we are forbidden from ending his pitiful life, lest we bring full war down upon our realm once more. But I can assure you all of one thing." Her grin grew even wider, flashing white and blue and dangerous like the half-seen glimpse of shark's teeth below the ocean's surface. "Before his time with us is finished, he will have begged for the mercy of death a thousand times over."

Howls and stamping erupted again at that, and if Skadi hadn't held his fetters Loki would have truly crumpled this time, quailing beneath the weight of their animosity. Fear was a metallic taint on his tongue that roiled his stomach, and he closed his eyes against the sting of tears, gulping great lungfuls of frigid air. He would suffer a thousand years of torture rather than weep openly before these beasts.

Skadi rattled the metal links in her hands to draw his attention. "Have you nothing to say, little one? Any words you would have us hear before your sentence begins?"

He gathered the tattered remnants of his dignity and raked her with a hot glare, taking a page from Jane's book of tragic pride, the sort that never had seemed to crumble no matter how the balance of power had been skewed. He refused to kowtow to Skadi or gratify her grandstanding.

She hissed with displeasure at his silence before storming down the steps once more, trailing Loki behind her as she pulled him through the gauntlet of assembled jotun towards the gaping maw of a cave set into a cliffside adjacent to the throne, icicles hanging like fangs from its entrance. Heatless blue flames flickered within orbs of clear ice set along the narrow passage as she led him deeper into the crevice that gouged the glacier, the lights pulling facets of green and azure from the smooth frozen walls.

The tunnel ended in a wide circular room with a ceiling that arched overhead in a perfect dome. Curving walls were unbroken by ornament save the ball of witchlight that hovered high in the apex of the cupola, casting watery light down onto the only feature of the room - an inverted U that stood in the very center of the floor, manacles arranged in four points about its circumference. Loki needed no explanation as to what purpose the structure served.

"Welcome to your guest quarters," Skadi said, with a ghastly leer. "I hope you find them to your liking, I've worked so very hard on the spells here."

He cast a derisive eye about the room, a reckless sort of courage bolstering his nerve. It wasn't as if he could somehow make his situation any worse than it was now. "Very subtle," he drawled, arching raven brows.

Irritation flattened Skadi's features, and she snatched at his forearm. He read the intention in her eyes and hysteria began to bubble in his chest as her fingers gripped him tightly, leather stiffening and shattering beneath her freezing grasp. The crumbling pieces of his clothing fell away to reveal not the blackened frostbite he saw she expected, but the slow creep of blue spreading over his skin, ridges raising in its wake.

"W-what?" she stammered in confusion, and Loki found he could only howl with half-mad laughter at the stunned expression on her face.

"Surprised, cousin?" he managed at last, between wheezing breaths, and Skadi's scarlet gaze darted between his face and the relentless march of azure across his skin.

"So the rumors were true," she breathed. "Laufey's whelp was not lost after all." Her eyes narrowed, and disgust curled her lip. "Bad enough to be a coward, but a traitor as well?"

Anger sparked in his chest at that, a familiar burn that he welcomed. It wove strength through the failing fibers of his muscles and bolstered his faltering joints. "I am no traitor. Your people will never be mine," he spat. "Savages and beasts, all of you."

She shook the arm she still gripped for emphasis, the spread of cyan and crumbling clothing past his shoulder now. "This would say otherwise, cousin. Perhaps we should strip away that pretty Aesir facade of yours, and you can try to say the same thing once more." Before he could scarcely draw breath her magic flared about him like a corona before condensing into the glittering shards of an icestorm. Power scoured at his skin, tried to flay all traces of Odin's spell from his flesh, and his throat strained around a soundless scream as his spine bowed beneath the agony.

After endless moments Skadi reined in her magic, the both of them pale and panting with exhaustion. "It cannot be undone," she snarled with disappointment, and hauled his limp form to the waiting manacles. He was too weak to resist as she fastened the fetters about his wrists and ankles. Pain was still singing along his nerves and weighing down his eyelids when she fisted her great hand in his hair, forcing his head backwards so sharply that his vision blurred with tears.

"I'd thought at first that simple tortures would suffice for you. Flaying or beating perhaps - there are plenty of widows and orphans that would volunteer to raise the whip. But I think now that you require something even crueller than that, Betrayer." A sneer exposed the startling white of her teeth, vivid against her dark blue lips. Her crimson eyes blazed as incongruent as coals in a snowdrift, the red of them filling his vision as she brought her face within a breadth of his own. "Tell me what you fear, runt."

The bindings had drained his magic and left him naked to her assault as what felt like greasy fingers rifled through his thoughts and memories, leaving smears of filth behind to dirty the inside of his skull. Bile rose in his throat at the horrid sensation, and he tried in vain to wrench his eyes from hers. Was this what it had felt like for Erik Selvig, for Clint Barton? This awful feeling of violation? Shame churned with the nausea in his belly until he thought he would be sick.

The slow spread of a smile across Skadi's face brought an end to the onslaught of his mind, and she released her grip on his hair with a small shove. For some moments he could only concentrate on the rhythm of his breath, lungs filling and emptying as he willed himself not to vomit.

"A strange thing for one such as yourself to dread," Skadi mused. "But how convenient for me."

Her signal brought one of the guards that stood at the door running over to kneel before his queen. "Your Highness?" the giant rumbled.

She never took her gaze off Loki as she gave the guard orders, glee crinkling the corners of her eyes. "Bring me Gargan."

The guard flinched, but stood and saluted before running out the door, heading towards a different wing of the icy palace. In no time at all he returned, struggling beneath the weight of an enormous crate. Whatever was within thrashed restlessly, nearly upsetting the jotun's balance on more than one occasion. The guard set his burden down at Skadi's feet with relief and hastened back to his post.

She lifted the dull metal of the lid and plunged fearless hands into its darkened depths. Triumph was a cold hard gleam in her eyes as she lifted them again, straining beneath the weight of a creature that set Loki moaning.

Great scaled coils colored the pale greens of frozen seawater looped endlessly about her forearms, writhing about themselves in a hypnotic weave. Above them all the heavy wedge of a serpent's head nosed through the strands of her hair, tongue dancing like a flicker of blue flame. Jet bead eyes glittered at him with uncanny intelligence.

"Do you like her?" Skadi asked, stroking an idle finger along the snake's patterned skin. "I spent two weeks tracking the ice serpent before I cornered her in a crevasse. She bit me before my spell took hold, so I understand completely the agony you are about to experience."

"No, no, no..." Loki's broken denials fell from his lips in pace with the racing of his pulse.

Skadi only smirked and raised her hands to the upper support of his fetters, the snake sliding from her arms to twine about the bar. Scales whispered along the back of his neck as Gargan settled herself against his skin, cold and unyielding like the hand of death. Terror raked claws down his gullet as Gargan's head swayed before his face, the tip of her tongue just brushing his nose as she tasted the salt of his fear.

"Fate is a lot like the venom of a serpent, Loki. The more we struggle against it, the faster it destroys us." Skadi tilted her head and a merciless smile knifed across her face. "Gargan...strike."

Fangs were hot daggers that seared the flesh of his neck, but it was the blaze of venom following the bite that tore screams from his throat as it flamed through his veins. Misery frayed the fibers of his muscles and ground his bones to powder until he sagged within his constraints. The frantic beat of his heart raced ever faster, flogged by pain and poison to dizzying speeds until there was no rest between one beat and the next, until the organ seized up entirely and Loki felt the illusion of mortality slowly becoming reality.

Just as blessed darkness fell for him the spell woven into his bindings flared, dragging him sobbing and mewling from the brink of death. Agony still shattered along his being, but he understood at last extent of his punishment - finality was a mercy he would never be granted.

"One thousand and sixty-five lives lost. One thousand and sixty-five hours you are here," intoned Skadi solemnly, and the look she fixed Loki with had almost a cast of pity to it. "And thus, one thousand and sixty-five deaths you will die, Loki of Asgard." She turned on a heel and marched from the room, ambivalent to his tortured cries echoing endlessly about the domed chamber, and Loki knew despair.

To Cleave the Stars

A Marvel Movieverse Story
by Hollywithaneye

Part 13 of 19

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